Once a generation or so — if we’re lucky — a playwright comes along who adds an entirely new color to the spectrum of theater. In the 1970s, that was Sam Shepard, and, in the 1980s, it was David Mamet. In the first decade of the 21st century, Sarah Ruhl has been able to create some of that same kind of excitement. Her quirky, seemingly arbitrary worlds are composed half of poetry and half of heartbreaking drama and intimacy. In The Clean House, Eurydice, and Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Ruhl has blazed a path that’s now been followed not only by the New York theaters but also by dozens of regional companies looking for the spark of the new. In Santa Barbara, we’ve seen a fine production of The Clean House at Ensemble Theatre Company in 2007, but apart from an excellent but very low-budget production at Ojai’s now-defunct Theater 150 in 2005, we have yet to experience the splendors of what many consider to be Ruhl’s best work: her early signature reimagining of the Orpheus myth from the point of view of Eurydice. Now that long wait is over, as director Jeff Mills and a cast of UCSB BFA students give Ruhl’s Eurydice a main-stage production in the school’s Hatlen Theater beginning this weekend. I spoke with Mills recently about the show, about directing Ruhl’s work, and about the role of myth in contemporary theater.
Our conversation began inside the Hatlen, where stage technicians were still hard at work putting the finishing touches on Nayna Ramey’s big, multilevel platform set, the configuration of which will feature prominently in this highly physical, movement-oriented production.
What a cool looking set. Is that long piece in the middle some kind of ramp? Yes, that’s a ramp, and the actors will be moving all over the multiple levels of those platforms. Eurydice involves a relatively small cast for a main-stage production, so I wanted to be sure that the actors used the whole stage.
You have been working with mythology for a long time. How would you describe Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice on its own and in relation to other versions of the Orpheus myth? Sarah Ruhl’s writing really appeals to me because I think she is first and foremost a fabulist, and that’s where I come from as well; I am a card-carrying fabulist myself. This story is ordinarily told from the point of view of Orpheus, and the fact that he fails to bring Eurydice back alive from the underworld is usually understood as his tragedy, but that’s not how Ruhl sees it. For her, the story is about a difficult choice that Eurydice has to make between her husband and her father. The father is such an important character in this version, and he’s not even in it at all in most other tellings. Ultimately it’s about women feeling trapped and about asking questions instead of just following rules.
Who is playing the father? Michael Morgan, who is one of our teachers here, the voice teacher, and he is great.
Any other interesting roles that people familiar with the myth but not the play might want to know about? Sure, the Nasty Man, who will be played by Chris Costanzo. He’s the lord of the underworld, but he’s written as a spoiled brat who rides around the stage on a tricycle.
I love the language of the play. What attracted you to the script? I have to give Risa Brainin, my department chair, a lot of credit for turning me on to the play, but I agree: The language is exciting. Ruhl knows her Samuel Beckett, but the way she does things is way more accessible. I think what you are hearing in her dialogue is what happens when a poet becomes a playwright.
Eurydice opens on Friday, May 24, and continues through Saturday, June 1, at UCSB’s Hatlen Theater. For tickets and information, call (805) 893-7221 or visit theaterdance.ucsb.edu.